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Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes

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BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
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“Rinse up, the both of you,” Pearl said when Juliet and Tuck trudged up the porch after work. “You look like you stepped out of a coal mine.”

Side by side at the kitchen sink, Juliet soaped the waxy traces of grease from her fingers and Tuck lathered his forearms,
scrubbing off the engine oil, playfully elbowing Juliet out of his way. A rainbow soap bubble floated between them, and Tuck stabbed it with his finger.

They settled themselves at the dinner table, where conversation, at their father’s request, was to extend beyond the topic of the war. They spoke about radio plays and the new Jimmy Dorsey songs, or about which vegetables were faring well in the garden. They examined the first tomato of the season, passing it around the table, guessing at its weight, then cutting it into wedges so they could each take a dripping bite.

“I actually had a letter from Senator Maybank,” Pearl began, serving their father a thick slice of glistening ham. “The senator said he is deeply concerned about safety regulations in the textile mills. . . .”

The overhead fan stirred the window’s gauzy curtains, thick gray moths battered the glass, and Juliet could see in the distance the flashing arcs and bands of the night’s first fireflies. The clock on the mantel ticked slowly. Soon it would be her turn to describe her day, but what could she report except that she had been scooping lard all afternoon, looking at a college brochure that seemed of interest to no one else, and that her “first kiss” had forgotten her in favor of a cheerleader.

“Pop, I’d like to borrow the car tomorrow,” said Tuck, wiping tomato juice from his chin. “To drive to Charleston.”

“You taking Myrna somewhere?” Myrna was Tuck’s latest girlfriend.

“Actually,” said Tuck, “I wanted to take Juliet to the movies. A matinee.” He turned to Juliet. “You free?”

They left early the next morning, riding with the windows open, the salt air tangling Juliet’s hair. Normally stagnant, the air in motion had a palpable thickness. It pressed against Juliet’s face. Past the intercoastal bridge, Tuck leaned into the backseat, rummaging through his bag. “Jules, take the wheel.”

“What?”

“I can’t steer with my knees!”

As Juliet reached for the wheel, the car lurched before she steadied her grip. Behind her she heard a snap and hiss; then Tuck swung himself back into the front seat and waved a bottle of Coca-Cola. “Beverages!” he announced.

The movie was
Our Town
. It surprised Juliet; she had never seen anything in which the characters spoke right to you, and she liked it. But Tuck, who had leaned far back in his seat as soon as they arrived in the theater, as though the movie had to impress him before he would sit up straight, rolled his eyes as they left the theater. “I wouldn’t have driven all this way if I knew it was gonna be depressing!”

“It was thought-provoking,” said Juliet.

“The last thing I need are more thoughts. I need ice cream. Want some ice cream?”

“Tuck.” She stopped walking. “Are you about to assassinate me? This whole day has a distinct last-supper feel to it.”

“Vanilla or chocolate?”

“Chocolate,” she conceded. “But if you offer me walnuts I’m going to have to make a run for it.”

He bought them each a cone and found a small table by the window of the parlor.

“So I’ve got something to tell you,” he said. “Right after my birthday”—he leaned across the table—“I’m going to Fort Branley.”

“Fort Branley,” she repeated flatly. “You’re
enlisting
?”

“I’ve got the papers right here. I wanted you to be the first to know.”

Juliet felt a sickening disorientation; Tuck would be leaving. For months, perhaps years. The idea horrified her. And yet in his elaborate display of affection, in letting her know that she was the first in whom he was confiding, she felt the hypnotic lure of his undivided attention.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, staring at the papers but
not reading them.

“They’d draft me soon enough anyway, but I’ve got to get
in
there.
Now.
” He thumped his fist on the table, and Juliet forced herself to nod. “I knew you’d understand,” he said. But he looked away, aware of his lie.

Juliet’s ice cream dripped onto her hand and he reached over with his napkin.

“And I’ll need your help,” he said. “On the Papa and Pearl front.”

They rode home in silence. Juliet was frightened by the violence of her own emotions. She suddenly hated her brother for his decision; it seemed, if not exactly selfish, so very neglectful of her feelings that she wondered briefly at his love for her. His departure would dismantle her life. He was a
piece
of her, of the way she thought about and planned her days, even if she was, as she long suspected, of far less consequence to him. What would a night at home be like without Tuck down the hall? How would a morning feel without him at the breakfast table? What would it be like to go months without talking to him, while he gallivanted through the world, facing endless new experiences? They would become different people, mere strangers with a vague shared memory of childhood. Or what if he got hurt? Juliet’s hands shook in her lap. She was accustomed to hiding her feelings, but she had never before faced such cavernous, looming loss. She stared out the window, wishing they would never reach home.

As they finally stepped from the car, Tuck hurried around and closed the car door after her. He drew her close in a hug. Juliet wanted to hit him. After all these years, he understood his power over her and was using it.

“Here we go.” He exhaled sharply and opened the front door.

Their father and Pearl looked up from the dining table. “How was the picture?”

Tuck sat and began to describe the movie. Juliet took her customary seat to her father’s right. It seemed Tuck had missed large portions of the story, and in his nervousness struggled to recall
the details. In between sentences, he ate ravenously and set his eyes on their father. Juliet, too, watched the exacting and deliberate way in which their father halved his green beans with a steak knife. For the first time she longed for his sternness, for his uncompromising austerity; she wanted him to defeat Tuck.

When Tuck finished his account of the film, he fell silent. Their father turned to Pearl: “Now tell us about your meeting at the Ladies Auxiliary.”

“Well, we’re planning to make packages for the troops next week. On Wednesday they want us to bring any baked goods and knitted socks. I was going to bake some butter pecan cookies tomorrow. Juliet, would you help me?”

“I’m going,” Tuck blurted out, pushing back in his chair so that for a moment it seemed as though he were announcing his departure from the table, “to the front.”

Their father set down his fork and knife and surveyed the arrangement of the dinnerware and place mats, as though bodies might soon be tangled across the table.

“Rommel’s wreaking havoc across Africa,” Tuck continued, his face tightening. “The U-boats are demolishing our ships, the—”

“I read the newspaper,” their father said.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Tuck continued. “I’m not going to hide out and wait for them to draft me. Not when I could help bring this war to an end sooner. Juliet understands. And she supports me.”

“I do,” Juliet said to her plate.


The right thing.
You realize, of course, that grenades have no sense of justice. That bullets and bayonets care nothing for morality. Being right doesn’t protect you from having your brain blown to bits.”

“Tuck, have you considered,” Pearl said softly, “serving as a noncombatant, like your father did? We support the war effort, but there are more sensible ways to help.”

“No disrespect to Papa, but in the words of FDR, I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

“You are quoting a man who can barely walk,” their father said.

“Pop, come on. I’m a quarterback, not a doctor. Look at me.” Tuck stood and opened his arms, trying to show his breadth. “You know exactly where I should be.”

“It is the hallmark of youth,” their father said, “to suffer an inexplicable and desperate urge to die. It is the hallmark of adulthood to feel a desperate urge to live. It seems you are decided in your course; I only hope that you will be an adult in it.”

Juliet’s heart sank.

It was a solemn few weeks while Tuck prepared to leave, and Juliet numbly accompanied her brother on every errand, sometimes sitting on the floor of his room for hours as he sorted through belongings.

It was only when their car pulled into the bus depot that muggy July day, when the fact of his departure became so sharply unbearable, that Juliet mustered the courage to say, “This is stupid. He shouldn’t go.”

Her father and Tuck turned around in the front seats with gentle pity, and Pearl, beside her, set her arm on Juliet’s back and said, “Sweetheart, we knew this would be hard.”

Their condescension infuriated her, and Juliet felt, finally, on the verge of an outburst; the sadness and anger, gathering for weeks, rose to the surface, so visibly, in fact, that her father’s expression turned quickly to displeasure. “Your brother has made a decision, and he is standing by it. So we will stand by him. That is the sole way to proceed. Come on, we’ll cook in here.”

The others stepped from the car and thumped shut the doors, leaving Juliet alone in the back, until finally she opened her door and walked around to the trunk, where Tuck was heaving out his swollen duffel. Though it was well beyond his strength, their father insisted on carrying it, and they all moved to where the brown bus was parked. The pavement smelled of wet tar, peculiarly sweet and
fresh, and the air glimmered hazily; the clouds overhead were long and rippled, as though the sky were a reflection of itself in water. It all felt entirely unreal, dreamlike.

“Oh, my brave, brave boy,” said Pearl, who had worn her yellow church outfit. She reached into her purse and held out a tissue-wrapped parcel. “I lost my husband, years ago, in the Great War, when he was your age. . . .” Her hand was trembling, and she turned to Juliet’s father, as though he might be able to explain her feelings, but he only put an arm around her shoulders; this seemed to fortify her, and she sucked back sniffles with a proud toss of the head. “I would like for you to have this.”

Tuck unwrapped the gift: the white glove Pearl had worn when shaking Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand.

“Pearl,” he said softly.

“It’s the only protection I can offer you.”

Tuck laughed. “I’ll be the only guy in the army with a woman’s glove.”

“Don’t try to joke your way out of this moment, young man. Take it, and put it somewhere safe.”

Tuck rewrapped the gift and placed it in the pocket of his shirt.

“I’ll bring it back.”

“Indeed you will,” answered Pearl.

Tuck beckoned Juliet forward. “Come on, no sulking. You finally get the bathroom to yourself!”

Juliet struggled to smile. “You won’t forget us. . . .”

“Of course I will.” He grinned. “But I’ll feel bad about it.”

He tilted his head to the side so that they stood almost face-to-face. Then he opened his arms and pulled her close. It was a real hug, without guile, and for the first time she could feel his sadness. Juliet sunk into him and closed her eyes. He held her tight and kissed her scalp, and they stood like that for several seconds. When finally his hold began to slacken, Juliet felt such immeasurable loss that she pulled quickly away and swallowed the knot in her throat.

Their father stepped forward. “Write when you get there, son.”

“Don’t expect Shakespeare. But I’ll put a pen to paper.”

“Remember, no foolish heroics. I spent two years piecing boys like you back together. Trust me, a bullet is bigger than you.”

Tuck saluted him: “Aye, aye, Captain.”

Their father hoisted the duffel and arranged the straps over Tuck’s shoulders, testing their evenness; Juliet remembered how, years earlier, he would fasten Tuck’s schoolbag onto his back each morning. It seemed so long ago, part of an entire life now disbanding in the heat, molecule by molecule.

Tuck got in line to board. He wore a light-blue dress shirt, bright against his summer tan, and had sheared off his curls the night before so that his head now looked square and somewhat severe. He seemed older. The man before him turned to chat, and Tuck engaged intently, appearing to forget that Juliet and their father and Pearl were there. Tuck nodded, his hands moving in an elaborate description. The size of a fish? Something he’d hauled in for scrap collection? Juliet desperately wanted to know. The man smiled and Tuck laughed—a full-bodied laugh that caused him to readjust his bag. She wanted him to turn back and share the joke; she wanted him to tell the man about his wonderful sister standing right over there. But already it seemed as if Tuck had entered a new world. He belonged to the people on the bus, to the people he would meet in the months and years to come. Juliet’s head felt heavy, loose on her shoulders.

He stepped forward, turned briefly, and flashed them an apologetic smile before he shook his duffel high on his shoulders and stepped onto the bus; that was it, a smile. It was difficult to see through the windows, but Juliet continued to wave to where she thought Tuck was standing, uncertain whether he was waving back, or even looking. She licked the tears from her mouth.

CHAPTER 3

December 1942

North Africa

Dear Gang,

It was a lonely Christmas without you; I hung the photos from home on the tree and our squad made ornaments from empty ration tins. Thank you for the Nelson’s soap and the knit socks; they’re getting plenty of use. I wish I could have sent something back.

We’re still encamped in the same place. The air is dry and the sun bright. Dozens of cats wander in and out of the tents all day long; I’ve never seen so many cats in my life! Apparently the KP (Kitchen Patrol) went soft and gave them some SPAM for Christmas, and now they won’t ever leave. It’s an odd thing to wake up in a tent in a strange country to the sound of endless meowing.

BOOK: The Secret of Raven Point
5.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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